Whose responsibility is sustainability?

When thinking about applying sustainable concepts across industries, I find myself wondering who is responsible for implementing changes to make sustainability the “new norm.” Is it the individual, the corporation or the government that should drive changes to our fundamental operations so that more than economics are considered when making decisions?

This is a complex question and the right answer is a combination of all three players.  Each group serves as a unique piece of the puzzle of wider acceptance and adoption of sustainable principles and practices.

Individuals have obligations to their companies and in their personal lives, limiting the impact a single individual can make. Yet, individuals are the foundation of both corporations and the government, making them the lifeblood of driving change within these organizations.  Not everyone will be interested, passionate or informed enough to drive change; therefore, it is the responsibility of larger conglomerates to enable individuals to make impactful change.

Corporations should encourage their passionate and motivated employees to pursue ideas.  At West Monroe Partners, our “innovation network” encourages individuals to submit ideas – and promises to financially support a certain number of the best ideas every year.  For example, it was identified that consumers need education and tools that allow them to monitor their energy consumption so they can understand how to better the environment and save money. At the same time, utilities need a better way to manage renewable resources to meet demands from customers and regulators. Through the innovation network, our “Connect the Grid” offering emerged that ties together how individuals can be better consumers of energy and how utilities can expand their use of renewable resources.

innovation network

Once an idea is implemented, companies should strive to make it easy for the masses to follow changes and adopt new practices.  This includes thinking through the “cognitive engineering” associated with successfully spreading new practices, such as how to get people to correctly follow recycling instructions or what policies or incentives to implement to motivate people to use a new program like Nest and ComEd (see previous blog).

Competition in the market also helps drive what innovations companies are interested in pursuing.  If one international retailer with significant market share is setting the precedent that it responds to consumer demands for more sustainable products, then other companies with lesser market share will follow.  This competition means it is critical that the biggest among our companies are in tune to what changes could drive more sustainable practices in various industries (a great example of this is represented by the recent “Need for Green or Need for Speed” study conducted).

Corporations ultimately have a responsibility to their economic bottom line and shareholders, therefore government regulation needs to ensure that companies are capable of tying economic benefits and motivations into their daily operations.  Otherwise it is easy for corporations to “talk the talk” of sustainability but fall short of “walking the walk”.  This leads to market “greenwashing” that is feared by many sustainability professionals since it drives skepticism in consumers.

Successfully embedding these ideas into a corporation or a governmental organization starts with informed individuals, making education (especially primary and secondary education) a key component to these successes, ultimately tying back to government policies and the state and national curricula that are used in schools.

Clearly there are interconnections between these three levels of society (individuals, corporations, and government), so what message should we pull from this blog? If we can understand the relationships described here and how they tie together to keep our “eye on the ball” we can help to foster these ideas within our own companies, in our personal lives, and as informed citizens. This may ultimately lead us to see widespread changes in a sustainable direction sooner than you might think.

The more people know why sustainability is important, the greater the force behind this effort will become.  This will allow us as a nation, and a planet, to feasibly move forward with new lifestyles and broadened horizons.

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Chicago, IL 60606
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